The incredible story of the rise of women’s football in WW1 is the emotive topic of a new stage play by internationally produced playwright Ed Waugh (Hadaway Harry, Carrying David, The Great Joe Wilson).
On December 5, 1921 the Football Association (FA) banned female teams from playing on FA grounds, using FA officials or any FA-run facilities – effectively banning women’s football.
To bring this scandalous decision to light Waugh uses the story of Bella Reay – the free-scoring Blyth Spartans centre forward of the Munitions Ladies in Northumberland.
Who was Bella Reay?
Bella was born in 1900. She bagged 133 goals in 30 matches for The Spartans and earned the affectionate Geordie title of ‘Wor’ – meaning ‘Our’ in English – even before the great Newcastle centre forward ‘Wor’ Jackie Milburn.
To evoke a more recent Toon superstar, Wor Bella is today warmly regarded as the Alan Shearer of her day.
Who were the munitionettes?
When male military conscription was introduced in 1916 hundreds of thousands of women flooded into the munitions factories to save the WW1 war effort.
The munitionettes, as they were called, worked dangerous, physical 60 hour weeks in shipyards, armaments factories, docks, steel mills and yet still found the energy to play football to raise money for injured soldiers, widows and orphans.
Where did they play the football matches?
Initially on minor football grounds and miners’ welfares but as women’s football became more popular – with thousands of fans paying six old pence entry (£1.50 today) the teams graced professional stadia.
But women’s football took an almost fatal blow when the war ended in November 1918 and war-time industries closed down, causing the munitionettes to be thrown out of work to accommodate returning war veterans.
Was that the end for woman’s football?
No. It had a resurgence in 1921 when teams again formed and money was raised to help families of locked-out miners.
After being nationalized for the war, the government gave back mines to coal owners, and bosses immediately demanded a huge wage cut to ‘restore profitability’. This led to terrible deprivation where families were thrown out of company houses and faced starvation.
The thought of women’s football becoming more popular than men’s football plus the political aspects of football teams during the 1921 miners’ strike led to the FA’s political and vindictive ruling.
How popular was the woman’s game?
On Boxing Day 1920 a match at Goodison Park, home of Everton FC, had more than 53,000 crammed into the stadium and thousands more locked out. Those days a world record for football attendance.
How was woman’s football received in the North East?
While hundreds of teams were formed through the UK, the North East was unique in that the sides competed for a trophy donated by a Sunderland businessman – the Alfred Wood Cup.
The 1918 ‘Munitionettes’ final at St James’ Park, Newcastle, between Blyth Spartans Ladies and Bolckow, Vaughan from Middlesbrough attracted 18,000 people.
After a 0-0 draw the replay was hosted at Ayresome Park – back then home of Middlesbrough FC. Blyth Spartans won 5-0 in front of a crowd of 22,000 and Bella Reay scored a hat-trick.
How is woman’s football received today?
It’s the fastest growing sport in the world but the players of today stand on the shoulders of those selfless munitionettes from more than 100 years ago.
The sad upshot is not a single statue or war memorial exists today to the millions of heroic munitionettes who saved the WW1 war effort. They have been largely forgotten…until now!
Northumberland and Durham FAs are enthusiastically supporting the play which will initially tour the North East in March/April 2022.
For further information visit: www.worbella.co.uk
Alikivi November 2021